ANAHEIM — A reporter asked Jeff Brinkley for his thoughts on Kai Ross and it drew a short response from the Newport Harbor High head football coach. He preferred to talk about his Sailors, not the Huntington Beach player who again proved to be the difference against his team.
Everyone on the field seemed to want to talk about Ross, or to him. He finally appeared with his jersey and shoulder pads off, shortly after leading his Oilers to a 42-28 victory and the program's first CIF Southern Section championship in 78 years.
With everyone else bundled up on a cold Saturday at Angel Stadium, Ross wore a sleeveless T-shirt.
He then excused himself from the throng of people around him to speak with his older brother. A teenager ran up to Ross, not to hand him a jacket or sweater, but rather an iPad. On the device, Ross communicated with his brother, Emmett, who lives in Ohio.
"Hey!" Ross said to his brother, whose face lit up on the screen as the brothers talked through video chat. "I have a ring to match yours now! We can wear them!"
Ross earned a CIF championship ring just as his brother did seven months ago. While Emmett won his on a volleyball court, Ross is getting his ring because of his stellar all-around performance inside a baseball stadium converted into a football field.
Ross sure found a way to hit the home runs, leading the Oilers against Newport Harbor in the Southwest Division final in front of 7,097 fans. The senior did it all. He completed 10 of 12 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, rushed 11 times for 90 yards, returned three kickoffs and two punts for a combined 81 yards, and covered and tackled whoever had the ball.
The biggest plays involved Ross intercepting and returning passes for touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Twice in a 10-second span, the cornerback recorded pick sixes, clinching the Oilers' section title.
For the second time since Nov. 8, the Oilers prevented the Sailors from claiming a title. They routed Newport Harbor, 40-14, in the regular-season finale, costing the Sailors a share of the Sunset League title and allowing the fifth-place Oilers to sneak into the playoffs as an at-large entry.
"I didn't think we'd see them again," said Ross, who still remembers the message his coaches gave the Oilers before they hosted the Sailors last month. "We [had] to win by a great margin [back then]. A 17-14 win, I don't think gets us [into the postseason], but a 40-14 win definitely got us [in]."
Once the Oilers made the playoffs, they began their impressive run. They upset the likes of second-seeded Yorba Linda, 31-14, in the opening round and shocked third-seeded Edison, 28-21, in the semifinals.
The Sailors also began to play their best in the postseason, stunning top-seeded La Habra, 49-48, in the quarterfinals. They made their first section finals appearance under Brinkley in eight years and his eighth overall in 28 years in charge.
In order to claim the school's fourth section crown, Newport Harbor had to slow down Ross and the zone-read offense. Ross hurt the Sailors in the first meeting, rushing 16 times for 120 yards and three touchdowns and completing 10 of 13 passes for 91 yards and a score.
The second time around, the Sailors kept Ross in check through the first 33 1/2 minutes. They held him to 85 yards and one touchdown through the air and 61 yards on the ground.
The Sailors took a 21-14 lead with 2:31 left in the third quarter. Quarterback Cole Norris hit wide receiver Keaton Cablay on a play-action pass, resulting in a nine-yard touchdown. The touchdown pass gave Norris (236 yards on 24 of 38 passing) his second, the first went to Cory Stowell on a 31-yard pass in the second quarter, giving the team a 14-7 lead.
Newport Harbor's second seven-point lead didn't hold up in the third quarter. Just like how the Oilers responded to the second-quarter deficit, they came back and evened things again.
Ross went to Maurice Barber, the quick and athletic receiver who tied the game at 14 with a 23-yard touchdown grab midway in the second quarter. This time, Ross threw a screen to Barber on the right, and it appeared Barber was on his way for an 81-yard touchdown. Safety Garrett Hall managed to trip up Barber (three catches for 129 yards) inside the Sailors' 20-yard line. The play went for 64 yards, and two plays later, another screen, a 12-yarder to running back Hunter Simmons, knotted the game at 21 with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
"We pinned them [on their 19] and then we let them out of the hole," Brinkley said. "If we could've shut them down right there and made them punt the ball back to us at that point, you know, it might have been a little bit different, but they made the plays and we didn't."
The Sailors went on to fall behind for the first time since the 1:29 mark in the opening quarter. Once again, they backed up the Oilers, as Hall downed a 46-yard punt by Michael Schultz on the seven.
A little more than 9 minutes remained and the distance to the end zone didn't matter to the Oilers. Their first scoring drive in the opening quarter began on their eight and ended 12 plays later in the end zone with running back Travis Heer's one-yard run.
Nolan Thompson covered more than half of the 93 yards on one play during the Oilers' go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. On third-and-seven, Ross threw a jump ball toward the Newport Harbor sideline, where Thompson came down with it. The defender bounced off Thompson and Thompson stayed on his feet, racing to complete a 52-yard touchdown.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Huntington Beach regained the lead at 28-21 and it never looked back. With Ross on defense, he managed to disrupt the Sailors' potent aerial attack the only way possible by intercepting passes intended for the Sailors' top receivers, Quest Truxton (nine catches for 105 yards) and Stowell (four catches for 61 yards).
The first pass Ross picked off, he leaped to get it and then took off for the Sailors' sideline. He then cut back to the left to finish a 36-yard return for a touchdown. Along the way, Ross broke six tackles, and 10 seconds later, the hearts of the Sailors when he picked off a tipped pass and brought it back 26 yards for a touchdown.
"We got to a point where we had to throw and they were playing coverage, and the [Ross] guy, you know, did a good job," Brinkley said. "The ball got out of Cole's hands awkwardly both times. The [second] time he got hit and the first time it just slipped out.
"I feel bad for our seniors. I would've liked to have sent them out on a happier note. But, you know, when it's all said and done, only one team walks away happy."
That team turned out to be Ross' Oilers. He celebrated with his teammates and coaches afterward. His brother, who plays volleyball at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio, even got in on the fun.
"It means everything," Ross said. "[Emmett is] coming back on Dec. 10. My family couldn't afford to fly him out here for Thanksgiving, so I'm going to be really excited to see him. He's probably going to come with me to size up that ring."
Huntington Beach 42, Newport Harbor 28CIF Southern Section Southwest Division Championship
Newport Harbor 0 - 14 - 7 - 7 - 28
Huntington Beach 7 - 7 - 7 - 21 - 42
HB - Heer 1 run (Miller kick), 1:29.
NH - Shaw 1 run (Schultz kick), 11:57.
NH - Stowell 31 pass from Norris (Schultz kick), 7:38.
HB - Barber 23 pass from Ross (Miller kick), 6:27.
NH - Cablay 9 pass from Norris (Schultz kick), 2:31.
HB - Simmons 12 pass from Ross (Miller kick), :11.
HB - Thompson 52 pass from Ross (Miller kick), 6:26.
HB - Ross 36 interception return (Miller kick), 5:51.
HB - Ross 26 interception return (Miller kick), 5:41.
NH - Durante 6 blocked punt return (Schultz kick), 1:53.
NH - Siemonsma, 16-33; Norris, 1-8; Gaddis, 1-3; Hall, 3-2; Shaw, 1-1, 1 TD.
HB - Ross, 11-90; Simmons, 14-63; Heer, 9-35, 1 TD; Team 4-(-6).
NH - Norris, 24-38-2, 236, 2 TDs.
HB - Ross, 10-12-0, 219, 3 TDs.
NH - Truxton, 9-105; Stowell, 4-61, 1 TD; Cablay, 5-46, 1 TD; Hall, 3-19; Siemonsma, 3-5.
HB - Barber, 3-129, 1 TD; Thompson, 3-59, 1 TD; Simmons, 3-18, 1 TD; Ison, 1-13.